Sustainability Certifications 101

The word “sustainability” seems to be everywhere these days, but what exactly does it mean?

Generally speaking, sustainability has three facets: environmental, economic and social.

Environmental sustainability focuses on responsible sourcing, production and shipping.  The goal is to make long-lasting, quality products from materials that have a low carbon footprint with safe, non-to-low toxic finishes.   For example, a dresser can be made from reclaimed or recycled wood.  Another example is a dresser made of renewable materials such as fast-growing bamboo that easily regenerates itself.  

Economic (also called ethical) sustainability focuses on the economic welfare of people.  Regardless of the industry, fair wages and fair labor conditions are essential to the sustainability of the people producing the products.

Social sustainability focuses on the health and well-being of people by understanding what they need from the places they live and work.

To ensure quality control in the building and furniture industries, the following certifications programs were created to inform and assure consumers that the buildings they work and reside in, along with the products they purchase, meet the required standards.

Certifications for Commercial Buildings and Residential Projects:

  1.  LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) - LEED is a green building rating system created by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for green buildings and communities worldwide.  USGBC’s mission “is to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built, and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life.”  LEED is for all building types and all building phases including new construction, interior fit outs, operations and maintenance and core and shell.  Projects can apply for certified, silver, gold and platinum certifications.   To learn more about LEED, visit the USGBC website here.
  2. WELL Certification - WELL is administered by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), a public benefit corporation whose mission is to improve human. health and well-being through the built environment. Differing from LEED, WELL certified projects focus on human sustainability. “The WELL Building Standard is an evidence-based system for measuring, certifying, and monitoring the performance of building features that impact health and well-being. WELL builds on LEED. It starts where LEED left off. WELL integrates performance thresholds after the design/prescriptive green building work has been completed. Learn more about WELL here.”

(Water Street project in Tampa, FL is the world’s first Well-Certified Neighborhood Platinum project. Checkout the developments here.)

Certifications for Furniture, Lighting and Water Fixtures

Sustainable furniture is a broad definition and can be as simple as being made out of a fast-growing regenerative plant such as bamboo or it can meet rigorous standards earning internationally-recognized certifications such GREENGUARD, Cradle to Cradle, the Oeko-Tex 100 label and FSC.

The furniture industry generated $116 billion dollars in 2018.  Leading manufacturers and retailers are shifting their focus to sustainable practices and responsible operations to lower their carbon footprint.

  1. Greenguard Certifications - Products that have achieved GREENGUARD Certification are “scientifically proven to meet some of the world's most rigorous, third-party chemical emissions standards, helping to reduce indoor air pollution and the risk of chemical exposure, while aiding in the creation of healthier indoor environments.” Learn more about Greenguard here.
  2. FSC Certified – The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a global organization that works to ensure responsible forest management. They “understand that trees are an integral part of manufacturing a wide variety of products. Instead of trying to eliminate the use of wood, they advocate for sensible and conscientious forest management practices that ensure access to products without causing significant damage to forests and our environment.”  Learn more about FSC certified here.
  3. Cradle to Cradle – “The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute is a non-profit organization that works to educate both consumers and manufacturers in an effort to improve the safety and sustainability of products. Certifications standards examine the health effects of construction materials, whether materials can be recycled and repurposed, and consumption of water and other resources, as well as, issues of social fairness.” Learn more here.
  4. Energy StarEnergy Star is an EPA-led symbol program that allows consumers to identify energy-efficient products.  Since its inception in 1992, more than 4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity have been saved with over 3.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas reductions.  Examples of Energy Star products and appliances include LED lighting, electronics, energy efficient HVAC systems, washers, dryers, etc. As an added benefit, many Energy Star products also qualify for tax credits.  You can learn more about tax credits. Enter your zip code here to learn what rebates are available in your area for Energy Star products.
  5. WaterSense LabelWaterSense is a label program sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which helps consumers identify water-efficient products.  The WaterSense label certifies that products use at least 20% less water as well as save energy.  Examples of WaterSense products include high-efficiency toilets (HETs), faucets and irrigation systems that also lower water bills. “
  6. MAS Certified Green – MAS (Materials Analytical Services) Certified Green, work with businesses to provide emissions testing and green certifications.  “Any product that is manufactured using plastics and chemicals emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be harmful to your health. In order to combat these risks and protect both people and the environment, organizations like MAS helps businesses enter the green market and reduce the impact that products have on the environment.”
  7. Green SealGreen Seal is a non-profit organization that provides U.S. based companies with environmental certification programs. They work to help consumers identify green products while also partnering with companies to encourage sustainability. To date, Green Seal has developed 33 standards that cover over 400 different kinds of products. They use scientific methods to measure certain criteria and ensure compliance with green standards.
  8. OEKO-TEX 100 - If a textile article carries the STANDARD 100 label, you can be certain that every component of this article (i.e., every thread, button and other accessories) has been tested for harmful substances and that the article therefore is harmless for human health. The test is conducted by their independent OEKO-TEX® partner institutes on the basis of their extensive OEKO-TEX® criteria catalog.  Learn more about OEKO-TEX 100 label here.
  9. Fair Trade Certified – “Fair trade is a global movement made up of a diverse network of producers, companies, consumers, advocates, and organizations putting people and planet first. When you see a product with the Fair Trade Certified seal, you can be sure it was made according to rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards.  They work closely on the ground with producers and certify transactions between companies and their suppliers to ensure that the people making Fair Trade Certified goods work in safe conditions, protect the environment, build sustainable livelihoods, and earn additional money to empower and uplift their communities.” Learn more here.

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